In just a few years and thanks to a hat-trick of must-watch TV series (Granchester, Happy Valley and War & Peace) James Norton has achieved household-name status at the age of 30.
There’s a theatre itch that this chiselled heart-throb needs to scratch, though, and he’s briefly doing so in characteristically brooding style in the hippest pop-up space in town, Found111, in the former Central Saint Martins College on Charing Cross Road.
I say ‘hippest’ - the top-floor fringe venue is actually a 130-seat fleapit barely big enough to swing a cat in, but that’s just perfect for Simon Evans’s 20th anniversary revival of Tracy Letts’s funny-peculiar drama about two lost souls who become increasingly convinced they are infested to the core with bugs.
Norton plays a youngish loner called Peter who enters the damaged, cocaine-inhaling life of Kate Fleetwood’s Agnes, a fortysomething woman who has taken refuge from her abusive ex-husband in a motel room on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. As befits a supposed former serviceman, Norton has gone for a rugged look, with close cropped hair, unshaven face and trim blue jeans and shirt.
Initially a softly spoken charmer who says he has no predatory interest in the opposite sex, he gains Agnes’s trust. No sooner have they lain in bed together (the dominant furniture item in Ben Stones’s down-at-heel set) than he has got the light on, is inspecting the bed-sheets and starts fixating on the microscopic critters he believes are sucking the life out of him or worse.
I’m not going to pretend that Letts’s play stands up to similarly ferocious inspection: it’s skin-deep stuff, drawing on the conspiracy theories of the time about Gulf War Syndrome and what the military might have been doing to its personnel. Yet given today’s paranoia about government surveillance and unseen decision-makers, the piece has ongoing topicality. And there’s something compelling about the way sinister ideas keep crawling out of the woodwork of Peter’s mind, assuming a reality for the fragile pair. The US playwright shows in microcosm how 'cult’ mentalities and loyalties take hold.
Those desperate to ogle Norton in the flesh should be warned that bleeding sores as big as bullet-holes pepper his chest and arms and those of a squeamish disposition will flinch as he reaches inside his mouth with a pair of pliers and wrenches out teeth, convinced even they have been ‘bugged’.
His American psycho has points of similarity with Happy Valley’s Tommy Lee Royce but this performance has its own creepy authenticity and strange plausibility. He’s matched in intensity by the gimlet-eyed Fleetwood, who has cheekbones every bit as striking as his too. Tickets are scarce - mind the touts don’t bite.
Author: Dominic Cavendish